Swisscom to cut mainframe spend as Cobol app moves to x86 Linux

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright May 30, 2017
Swiss telecoms and IT giant Swisscom is working with LzLabs to move core billing apps to x86 Linux systems and cut mainframe spend on maintenance, licensing

zEC12 data center pic by IBM 370px
An IBM zEC12 data center

Swiss telecoms giant and IT services provider Swisscom is to start migrating a suite of billing applications from its IBM mainframe to a software-defined mainframe platform running on x86 Linux. Due to be completed early next year, the move will reduce the telco's significant maintenance spend on mainframe software and hardware.

The project marks the first announced customer win for Switzerland-based startup LzLabs, which creates a software-defined environment that it says is able to run mainframe applications unchanged. We covered the six-year-old, venture-backed company's release of its software last year:

The company has written its own equivalents of all the main subsystems of the mainframe environment — CICS transaction processing, VSAM data access, DB2 and VSAM databases — to run on Linux, so that an entire mainframe application can run its original COBOL or PL/1 code and datasets unchanged on the platform. Partnerships with Red Hat and Microsoft mean the virtual mainframe can be deployed in datacenters on Enterprise Linux or on the Azure public cloud.

Swisscom will run the LzLabs platform within the telco's own data centres in Switzerland as part of its core IT infrastructure, using standard x86 servers running Red Hat Enterprise Linux.

Application migration

In a prepared statement, Markus Tschumper, Swisscom's Head of General IT Services, says that the ability to re-host the applications without making changes to the program code was an important factor in choosing the LzLabs platform:

We have had a good experience with our mainframe applications in the past. However, because of the high cost of operating the mainframe applications, we decided to use LzLabs’ solution. The migration of the applications requires a low level of effort so that they can continue to run on the LzLabs Software Defined Mainframe.

The Swisscom applications are primarily related to billing, which many telecoms operators continue to run on mainframe platforms because they are core business systems that process high volumes of transactions. Three applications make up the system, running COBOL and PL/I on an IBM zEC12 mainframe system in two locations. IBM launched the zEC12 five years ago, pitching it — ironically in the context of today's news — as an alternative to private clouds.

Greater flexibility

Thilo Rockmann, Chairman of LzLabs, says in a press statement today that the project demonstrates the extra flexibility its solution can introduce into an enterprise application landscape:

We are helping Swisscom to continue using its legacy applications in a more cost-effective environment — without the need for elaborate redesign and costly rewriting of applications.

This means our customers no longer have to spend their IT budgets on the extremely cost-intensive architecture environments they’ve experienced up to this point.

Although the core application code does not need to be recompiled and the mainframe data retains its native format, the rehosting process does replace the original mainframe APIs with more up-to-date interfaces. As CEO Mark Cresswell told diginomica last year, this provides greater flexibility to integrate the mainframe applications with other more modern applications should customers wish to:

Once the customer applications are running inside the software-defined mainframe, we have capabilities that can enable them to be accessed as a service. At which point they then become more interoperable with systems that are very microservice based. You can also then begin to gracefully migrate individual parts of an application suite into non-legacy languages.

My take

This is a valuable customer win for LzLabs and will provide an important proof point for its solution. Telco billing systems are a prime example of the type of high-volume transactional application that has remained on mainframe platforms because of the difficulty of reliably porting these core business applications to alternative platforms.

Enterprises no longer wish to continue paying high maintenance fees for systems that, no matter how reliable they may be, are enormously difficult to integrate with the rest of a fast-changing IT landscape. The running cost is compounded by the risk exposure of things going wrong when integrations fail — as recent failures at banks and airlines, most notably BA's catastrophic IT failure last weekend, show only too keenly.

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